Expect the unexpected: Michael Palin discusses his discovery of the Danish painter Wilhelm Hammershoi

Michael Palin has become an accidental expert on the Danish painter Wilhelm Hammershoi. Photo: Chris Blott

“Chief Appreciator” may sound like an absurdity from a Monty Python skit — “I am Chief Appreciator at the Ministry of Silly Art,” perhaps — but Michael Palin is unexpectedly playing such a role in real life, and it links him to the National Gallery of Canada.

Palin, who founded the hugely influential Monty Python’s Flying Circus with John Cleese, Graham Chapman, Terry Jones, Terry Gilliam and Eric Idle in 1969, has in recent years made TV documentaries on travel, history and art, including 2005’s Michael Palin and the Mystery of Hammershoi.

When I chanced upon the documentary on Youtube in early 2016 it was my introduction to Wilhelm Hammershoi, a Danish painter who died in 1916 and whose work was, over the next few decades, almost forgotten even in his native Denmark. Only a few weeks after I watched the documentary, the National Gallery in Ottawa acquired a fine painting by Hammershoi, titled Sunshine in the Drawing Room. I recently wrote on artsfile.ca about the painting and its acquisition, but I was curious about Palin’s story, so we chatted by phone from his home in England. 

“I think he’s a terrific painter, very underestimated,” Palin says. “There’s such a haunting quality to all the work he does. It’s very arranged, a lot of it, but what he does with space, and emptiness, and rooms with doors half open is just, I think, compelling.”

Palin encountered Hammershoi serendipitously in 2000 or 2001.

“I came across a catalogue of an exhibition that had been, I think, in Paris in 1998. We were filming another arts documentary about the Cone sisters of Baltimore, who were great collectors of Matisse and other people. And in one of the arcades, an old sort of bookstore, I came across this catalogue, and I was very drawn to the painting. It was the first time I ever heard of it.”

That led to the BBC documentary, and to Palin’s unintended elevation to the role of Hammershoi expert. 

Soon after the documentary aired the Royal Academy in London “put on a very good exhibition of his work, and I went and talked to them about it. I suddenly found myself exalted from a mere appreciator to an expert. I found myself talking about Hammershoi only because a lot of people didn’t know anything about him at all.”

The one-eyed man is king in the land of the blind. 

“Even in Denmark, he’s not particularly well known. More so now, but earlier last year they asked me to go and open an exhibition of Hammershoi’s work in Copenhagen. Suddenly I find myself chief appreciator, and it’s a very happy position to be in . . . It’s great, really, to be able to sort of help along the reputation of a very little known painter.”

I suggest that he’s better known worldwide than Hammershoi is, and Palin responds by talking not of his own renown but of Hammershoi’s indifference to fame. 

“He was a very quiet, self-contained man who didn’t like display, who stayed in his home most of the time. His wife may possibly have had a depressive illness, and it was clearly quite a claustrophobic world in which he lived. Very different from the world I live in, I suppose.” (A wholly sound observation, given the outrageous comedy of Palin’s earlier years and his later, extensive, curiousity-driven travel.) “There’s something slightly mournful about what he does. I don’t think he meant that particularly but it seems to be there. There’s a kind of sense of regret and longing for something that should have been. I love that, I think that’s absolutely fascinating. It’s so much more interesting to have a painter who paints about restraint rather than exuberance all the time.”

I tell him the National Gallery’s Hammershoi painting hangs next to Van Gogh’s explosively exuberant Iris. “Wow,” he says. “That’s a contrast.”

Has the reputation of a man Palin has called “the surprisingly uncelebrated artist” grown in the past decade?

“Certainly I think in Denmark, there’ve been two or three exhibitions, very, very popular, so the Danes themselves are appreciating his work, which certainly didn’t seem to be the case when I was doing the documentary.” And after the exhibition in London, “suddenly his work appears on book covers, on posters, so I think he is becoming more familiar to people. 

“I think his reputation will slowly grow, because I’ve not met anybody who says, ‘oh, that’s boring, I’m not very interested in that.’ Everybody is grabbed.” 

Would he buy a Hammershoi painting for himself?

 “I’d love to have a Hammershoi. My friend Terry Jones always had a theory about why I did these art films. He said, ‘you find an artist who’s completely unknown, buy his work, make a program about him, see the costs shoot up and then sell it afterwards.’ I said, ‘no, Terry, how dare you.’ But certainly that’s what seems to have happened.”

Except he didn’t buy a painting before the documentary. “I probably couldn’t afford one now.”

He commends the National Gallery for its good taste in acquiring a Hammershoi. 

“I’m so pleased that there’s one in Ottawa now, and that people will see it, and be curious, and maybe they’ll get another one. You make sure they buy a few more Hammershois when they come on the market. Canada can be the centre of Hammershoi worship.” 

Share Post
Written by

Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.